A bird’s eye view: Exhibition explores humanity’s often destructive relationship with its avian cousins in surprising and informative ways

 

A painting of an angel crying over what appears to be a table covered with dismembered bird remains – bright green, blue and white feathers scattered, wings broken – is one of the more striking works in The Wonder of Birds, an exhibition at Norwich Castle Museum. A Dedication (“To those who love the beautiful and mourn over the senseless and cruel destruction of bird life and beauty”, 1888-9) by the British artist George Frederic Watts is whimsically Pre-Raphaelite in style, but makes a point.

The painting is an example of the Victorian belief that art should not merely be beautiful, but improve public morals. It is an indignant call to end the hunting of birds, part of the conservation movement that grew in the 19th century as the use of feathers for fashion became ever more popular. It sets the tone for this wonderful, dazzlingly eclectic exhibition, which celebrates the wonder of birds (as the title suggests) while telling the compelling story of their endangerment.

Our fascination with birds over the centuries – aesthetic, spiritual, scientific – has often been fatal for them. The exhibition includes a staggering range of works – from taxidermy to drawings and photography – and links the subject to the local area of Norfolk. The narrative of how humans have so often loved birds to death is given its proper sense of drama.

Much more than eccentric, the exhibition is philosophical and humane. The gallery text is unusually garrulous, with a lot of exclamation marks, which I liked. You can spend at least two hours here and emerge feeling like an expert on birds – or driven bird-crazy.

To the right of Watts’ painting, there is an intriguing showcase full of the kind of feathery fashion items which he so lamented. There is a pale pink pair of “boudoir boots”, marked on the sole with “Mrs Chettleburgh 1910,” and adorned with plumes of ostrich feathers. They are frothily glamorous – once worn by society women lounging in informal tea-gowns, entertaining “intimate friends” at home between social engagements, according to the text. The “delicacy and fragility” of their design conformed to ideals of femininity in the early 20th century.

There is also a bold purple “bolero jacket” from the 1920s and a cloche hat from the 1960s for “older women”. Both are made with ostrich features. These items are chic, but marked with death – this theme is further explored elsewhere in the exhibition.

Dodos were birds that could neither fly nor run very fast, and once lived on the island of Mauritius. The species was killed off after the arrival of Dutch sailors in the 16th century. The dodo entered the popular imagination in the late 19th century with the publication of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. It is thought that the dodo character reflected Carroll himself. This squat, white, bulky-beaked animal has become a symbol of obsolesce. If you are “dead as a dodo”, then you are really dead.

The works that feature dodos here point to overlapping histories of colonialism, natural science and myth. Dutch artist Pieter Holsteyn II’s elegant though cartoonish watercolour, Portrait of a White Dodo (c.1670s) was once believed to be a study of a live dodo, imported from Mauritius to Holland. In fact, its fluffy, rotund form was a study of a taxidermied dodo, part of the emperor Rudolf II’s curiosity collection. Due to taxidermists’ habit of overstuffing the body, many representations of the dodo were inaccurate; its famed fatness was not natural. Nevertheless, these drawings assumed the status of scientific fact.

Beginning in the 16th century, birds were taxidermied with a range of substances from salt and vinegar to quicklime and arsenic. These dead creatures, often born to fly, were immortalised in lifelike poses that appear uncanny. Birds were objects of aesthetic as well as scientific interest; in death, they were rendered tame and knowable. The numerous works of taxidermy here are symbols of the Western world’s tendency to control what is wild and mysterious.

There is a small taxidermied goldfinch in a glass box, perched on a branch, its beak open in faux-song, its feathers yellow, black, and brown. The scene is set with bits of faux-foliage. The bird seems nondescript until you read about its back-story: it was stuffed by Fred Ashton in the 19th century, a local taxidermist apprenticed to the authoritarian Frederick Gunn, who stipulated that his charges were not allowed to attend music halls or marry while under his command. An X-ray of Ashton’s goldfinch shows the interior of its body filled with a tangle of wires, which identifies it as one of the Norwich School.

Ashton, too, was a character: he famously ate the flesh of the birds he taxidermied, and pencilled on the bits of wood that he used as bases: “I ate body!” This is one of the many mad details, offered by the gallery text, which elevates the exhibition from being a rather dull collection of natural history specimens to a vivid social history. It plays on our sense of the macabre while encouraging us to empathise with the historic plight of birds.

More taxidermied birds peer down from high ledges throughout the exhibition, seemingly accusing us humans from beyond the grave. There is a plump-breasted white cockatoo, a blue and gold macaw, a domestic turkey, a chicken, and a magnificent  Berwick’s Swan, named after the Enlightenment natural history author Thomas Bewick, whose  History of British Birds (1804) became a  classic. It is read by a young Jane Eyre in the first chapter of Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel. A 19th-century edition of Bewick’s book is  displayed here.

Swans are often a symbol of love due to their life-long, monogamous relationships, a fact that enhances the gruesomeness of two black-and-white photographs from around 1900, which show a local Norwich “swan pit”. Not only the preserve of royalty, swans were fed up and eaten at Christmas. Elsewhere, a case of exquisite humming-birds, arranged as though in flight, is yet another example of the human desire to kill and display that which appears most graceful.

The visual documentation of birds changed with the advent of photography. A series of black-and-white photographs from the 1930s and 1940s by Eric Hosking are stylish and strangely furtive. Hosking was overlooked as a photographer until his eye was tragically gouged out by a tawny owl in 1936, during an attempt to photograph it. The press coverage made him famous.

The development of flash photography opened up the possibility of capturing images of nocturnal birds mid-hunt. Hosking’s photograph of a barn howl with a vole in its mouth is voyeuristic; the owl appears caught in the act. Another photograph shows a heraldic barn owl in dramatic flight, similarly with its prey in its mouth.      

Other works of note include an embroidered pin-cushion, featuring a bright-winged bird, most likely made by the Suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst during her time in Holloway Prison after the successful shop window smashing event of 1912. Her bird is a symbol of freedom. There is also a stunning marquetry work-box made by prisoners of the Napoleonic War during the early 19th century. Its sumptuous, seemingly gold surface is adorned with images of birds in love and birds in death.

The curators also offer a sense of how the multifarious symbolism of the bird has been used by political power. A Soviet propaganda poster from the Second World War shows the Nazi eagle being strangled and reduced to the status of a crow – a lowly creature by comparison. And there is a poster of the 1963  Hitchcock film The Birds, based on the Daphne Du Maurier story, in which flocks of birds attack humans. In light of the slaughter of birds by humans throughout history, so beautifully documented in this exhibition, such revenge seems only right.

‘The Wonder of Birds’, Norwich Castle Museum, Norfolk (01603 493625; museums.norfolk.gov.uk) to 14 September

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